by Br Julian McDonald cfc
The people said to Jesus: “What sign will you give to show us that we should believe in you? What work will you do? Our fathers had manna to eat in the desert; as scripture says: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus responded: “I swear to God, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven to eat; it is my Father who gives you real bread from heaven. I mean this: God’s bread comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir”, they said to him, “give us this bread every time.” Jesus explained to them: “I am the bread of life. Anyone who comes to me will never be hungry again, and anyone who believes in me will never again be thirsty.” John 6, 24-35
In the early 1960s when I and twenty-eight other young men received the religious habit, we were urged in a prayer formula “to put off the old man and put on the new one.” That prayer was a dated translation of part of today’s second reading from Ephesians, which is an exhortation not just to put on a new self-image, but to eradicate from our lives all traces of self-deception and pretending to be other than who we really are. That is all part of what is meant by following in the footsteps of Jesus.
At different times in our lives, many of us have tried to smarten up our self-image by changing our hair-style, buying a new suit, wearing expensive shoes, cutting holes in the knees of our jeans, or even changing to “trendy-looking” glasses. Today’s reading from Ephesians is a challenge to get beyond the superficial and to adopt a change of heart that involves living as Jesus invites us to live. And the truth is that we know when we are making genuine efforts to do just that, and when we are only “playing pretend”. I want to suggest that this reading is key to understanding how all three of today’s readings fit together.
In the gospel, Jesus is confronted by a crowd looking for a repeat of the feeding of the five-thousand-strong crowd just a few days before. To strengthen their case, they referred Jesus to the Exodus story of the manna that satisfied their ancestors when they were wandering in the wilderness. Jesus reminded them that it was God, not Moses, who provided the manna. The people badgering him were looking for more signs to satisfy themselves that Jesus was a prophet. They wanted him to produce bread on demand. Jesus, however, pushed them to reflect on what was the real source of both the manna in the desert and his feeding of the five thousand: the compassion and love of God. He went even further, challenging them to be God’s compassion and love for others. That is what is at the very foundation of John’s teaching on Eucharist. But let’s hasten slowly!
The whole of Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel is the writer’s detailed explanation of what the Eucharist is all about. John puts the words “I am the bread of life” in the mouth of Jesus to empathise that he has been sent by God into the world to be the only kind of food that will provide lasting nourishment to a world in need. John has Jesus say that the only true bread, the only food worth having “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6, 33). That prepares the way for Jesus to identify himself as that true bread: “I am the bread of life” (John 6, 35).
There are serious scripture scholars who question whether Jesus, in real life, actually said these words. Rather, they argue that this whole chapter in John’s Gospel is the result of John’s reflection on who Jesus was and that he was sent by God into the world to give life, nourishment and hope to humanity. Believing that Jesus was sent by God to give us life by showing us how to live is foundational to our faith.
Throughout John’s Gospel there are at least seven graphic “I am…” statements attributed to Jesus. “I am the bread of life” is the first of them. In order we hear Jesus proclaim: “I am the light of the world” (8, 12), “I am the door” (10, 9), “I am the good shepherd” (10, 11 & 10, 14), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11, 25), “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14, 6) and “I am the vine and you are the branches” (15, 1 & 15 5). All of these statements are echoes of words uttered by prophets and leaders of the Old Testament, and can be traced to the books of Exodus, Kings, Daniel and to the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Moreover, they are all metaphorical statements. Jesus is not literally bread, light, a door, a shepherd, resurrection, a pathway, truth or a vine. Nonetheless, they are all statements laden with meaning about what Jesus came to do and about the impact he had on the world.
The whole point of today’s challenging and difficult gospel reading is that it is a vigorous shake-up for us to cease looking to Jesus (or to God) for instant gratification and quick solutions to all our problems. Rather, we are invited to see in Jesus the one who will sustain us on our journey through life, the one who shows us how love is shared, how reaching out in compassion and how living in gratitude for all we have will lead us to live with purpose and meaning. John reminds us that to participate in Eucharist is to open ourselves to take into our minds and hearts Jesus, the Word of God. In doing that, we are transformed into the one we receive. As we leave our churches at the end of our Eucharist, we are urged to live what we have celebrated: by lives of service, by reaching out in compassion and reconciliation, by being bread broken and wine poured out for others. If I can do that, those who think they know me might come to realise that I have had something more than a face-lift. Moreover, the “old man” I was urged to put off in 1961 might have finally been superseded.
There is one more lesson to be learned from today’s first reading: While God is gracious, nurturing and exceedingly generous, God is not one who is into spoon-feeding. The Israelites found themselves ankle deep in quail and puzzled by the manna surrounding them, but they still saw the need for cooperation. In order to eat their fill, they had to work together to gather provisions, and the manna required special care. Emerging freedom required accountability. They saw that they had to create a sustainable economy out in the middle of nowhere. They found themselves in the first stages of building a community, of learning what it takes to be community. This was how a nation grew: through hum-drum activities, through the tasks and to-do lists of everyday life. It was in the wilderness that they had to re-invent themselves, undergo the transformation from slaves responsible only to the Egyptian System into a people responsible to themselves, to each other, to their God. Is it any different for us?